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What Advantages Does Spinoza’s Substance Monism Have over Descartes’ Dualism? Essay

Spinoza’s philosophy as espoused in the Ethics was a response to Descartes’ dualism. Through works such as the Ethics, Spinoza seeks to address the main flaws in Descartes’ philosophy. These flaws included but were by no means limited to, proof for the existence of God and the interaction between mind and body. This essay will highlight the advantages of Spinoza’s monism over Descartes’ dualism by looking at Spinoza’s response to these issues. First, in order to consider the advantages of Spinoza’s substance monism over Descartes’ dualism it is necessary to show how each philosopher demonstrates their substance dualism or substance monism.

Tim Crane defines monism and dualism as follows: “Monism denies that minds and their bodies are distinct substances. Monists assert that substances are all of one kind. They could say that all substances are mental; or they could say that all substances are bodily […] Dualists hold that minds and bodies are capable of independent existence. ” Although the concept of dualism can be traced back to Plato, it is generally recognised that modern versions of substance dualism have their origins in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in 1641.

In the Sixth Meditation Descartes’ states that: It is true that I may have (or, to anticipate, that I certainly have) a body that is very closely joined to me. But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. Descartes’ distinction here is between two types of substance, extended corporeal substance, res extensa and non-extended thinking substance, res cogitans.

If one is to include God in Descartes’ theory on substance, then it could be considered that his ‘dualism’ allows for three substances; or as has been pointed out, God is Descartes’ only substance and mind and body are secondary substances. Spinoza’s substance monism is in opposition with dualism. While Descartes considered that there were two types of substance, extended and non-extended, Spinoza held that there was only one particular substance, which he refers to as Nature, or God.

Spinoza’s method in the Ethics has been subject to varying interpretations, however, Della Rocca, in Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza, considers that Spinoza sets out his argument for substance monism in five steps: In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute (1P5) Here Spinoza is ruling out the overlap of attributes between substances. The next step in setting out his substance monism is: It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist (1P7).

As, In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute (1P5), they cannot cause one another and must be self-caused. This is followed by: God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. Dem. : If you deny this, conceive, if you can, that God does not exist. Therefore (by A7) his essence does not involve existence. But this (by P7) is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists, q. e. d. (1P11 D1) God’s existence is demonstrated by the application of (1P7) to God.

As God is a substance it therefore pertains to God’s nature to exist and it cannot be otherwise. By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence. (1D6) Here Spinoza is demonstrating that being of infinite attributes it follows that God has all attributes. The culmination of Spinoza’s rationale for substance monism is (1P14) which states that: Except God, no substance can be or be conceived (1P14).

As Della Rocca explains: “Since by 1P5, attributes cannot be shared and since God has all of them, there can be no other substances besides God. ” For Spinoza, everything that can and does exist necessarily exists through God. While the above steps demonstrate Spinoza’s substance monism, they also show that the overarching factor in his philosophy is the argument for the existence of God and God’s attributes which necessarily follow. The advantage of Spinoza’s substance monism over Descartes’ substance dualism in terms of his metaphysics of God/Nature, is that Spinoza’s God is one that supports his entire system.

Where Descartes’ Meditations is built on doubt, Spinoza’s Ethics is built on certainty and on a series of definitions. His notion that God is the only substance, the core of his monism, hinges on his definition of God/Nature: By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i. e. , a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which one expresses an eternal and infinite essence (1def6) While Descartes sought, through the Meditations, to be certain of the truth of his own existence as a ‘thinking thing’ and then prove God’s existence, Spinoza turns Descartes’ argument on its axis.

For Spinoza the argument that God exists as the only substance, because as a supremely perfect being he must necessarily exist is the basis of the Ethics. Spinoza’s statement of God’s existence as the only substance gives his argument a strong foundation from which to build the rest of his philosophy. The axiomatic format of the Ethics enables Spinoza to set out his philosophy in a more direct manner than Descartes.

While Descartes does not set out to prove God’s existence until the Third Meditation, Spinoza never brings God’s existence to doubt instead setting out a number of definitions and axioms which are taken by Spinoza to be true. The rest of his philosophy goes on to show exactly how these are true by being self-referential. Spinoza’s argument for the existence of God/Nature therefore is the key to his monism as everything that exists does so through a God whose existence is never doubted (since to do so would be ‘absurd’). Spinoza’s God/Nature is one which is impersonal, opposed to Descartes’ interpretation.

On proving the existence of God, in the Third Meditation, Descartes states that: By the word ‘God’ I understand a substance that is infinite, <eternal, immutable,> independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both myself and everything else (if anything else there be). As Edwin Curley says: “Spinoza’s denial of personality to God, his insistence that God has no intellect, no will, no purposes and no emotions, has made his God seem rather remote, a God only a philosopher could love. This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

” That God is abstract fits in with Spinoza’s pantheistic explanation of God as Nature. As shown above, Spinoza’s argument for substance monism is made clear by when he states that apart from God, ‘no substance can be or, consequently, be conceived’ (1P14). This statement places Spinoza’s philosophy at odds with Descartes’ substance dualism, which holds that there are two distinct substances, mind and body, the so-called ‘separability argument’. Descartes’ mind and body substances have been defined as follows: Any substance with mental properties lacks material properties and any substance with material properties lacks mental properties.

This is in opposition to Spinoza’s view that mind and body are attributes of the one substance, God/Nature, as has been shown above. Descartes’ assertion that mind and body are two separate entities and that as a human being he is a ‘thing that thinks’ poses the problem of how mind and body interact. This is a problem that Spinoza’s substance monism seeks to overcome. John Cottingham, in Cartesian dualism: theology, metaphysics, and science, opens by saying: “Throughout his life Descartes firmly believed that the mind, or soul, of man […] was essentially nonphysical.

” Cottingham goes on to say that for Descartes there is ‘a ‘real’ (realis) distinction between the mind and body, in other words, the mind is a distinct and independent ‘thing’ (res). In the Meditations Descartes states that in so far as he is a thinking, non-extended thing, he is distinct from his body and can exist without it. For Descartes then, mind and body are two separate entities; in particular the mind is non-physical – Descartes’ ‘incorporeality thesis’.

Descartes’ position on the question of mind and body is made apparent on his philosophical journey in the Meditations when he defines himself as a ‘thinking thing’, the cogito, which does not expressly arise in the Meditations. But what am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions. Specifically, Descartes elevates the mind to a position of significance over the body in terms of being able to prove his own existence in the face of the extreme doubt being pursued in the First Meditation.

Descartes comes to the conclusion that he is a ‘thinking thing’ in the Second Meditation, The nature of the human mind and how it is better known than the body. Descartes’ path to this conclusion comes while still in a phase of scepticism in the First Meditation. Descartes considers that a ‘…malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me…’ However, the ‘malicious demon’ is defeated by the following passage: … let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something.

So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. ‘Putting forward’ or the act of thinking is proof alone for Descartes that he exists. Descartes’ belief that he is a ‘thinking thing’ sits alongside his consideration of the body as a machine. Descartes has a ‘purely mechanical view of biology’. In the Sixth Mediation Descartes states that:

Admittedly, when I consider the purpose of the clock, I may say that it is departing from its nature when it does not tell the right time; and similarly when I consider the mechanism of the human body, I may think that, in relation to the movements which normally occur in it, it too is deviating from its nature if the throat is dry at a time when drinking is not beneficial to its health. Descartes also refers, in the Sixth Meditation, to the nerves which ‘pull on inner parts of the brain to which they are attached’.

For Descartes therefore, the human body is comparable to a mechanism such as a clock, a mechanism which is not without risk of malfunction, with the mind existing as a separate entity. In The History of Philosophy the union of soul and body is described as ‘entirely mechanical’ and ‘diametrically opposed’. “The soul inhabits the body as an alien thing, a mechanical and entirely artificial relationship. Without the soul, the body is like a lifeless machine or automatum (sic). Even the best-constructed robot cannot acquire a human consciousness, even if it is programmed to speak.

” Descartes’ analogy of the human body as a separate mechanism from the mind has come under close scrutiny from critics. Famously, Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of the Mind refers to Descartes’ ‘official doctrine’ of mental powers and operations as ‘the ghost in the machine’. For Ryle there was an obvious absurdity behind the idea that the mind could exist alongside the body without any explanation of how the two interact, if indeed they do at all. John Cottingham asserts that Descartes’ thesis of the immateriality of the mind presented him with ‘a nest of problems that were to become notorious stumbling blocks for Cartesian philosophy.

’ To explain how two disparate substances could co-exist, Descartes pointed to the pineal gland, in the brain as hosting the mind’s bodily existence and providing the point of contact between the ‘animal spirits’, or impulses of the brain and the substance of mind. Although Descartes is at pains to emphasise that mind and body are separate substances he is also keen to stress that the two are inexorably joined. Descartes theory that interaction between mind and body takes place in the pineal gland doesn’t appear to hold up to intense scrutiny.

Indeed, in the Sixth Mediation Descartes appears to gloss over the subject when he says: Every time this part of the brain is in a given state, it presents the same signals to the mind, even though the other parts of the body may be in a different condition at the time. This is established by countless observations, which there is no need to review here. John Cottingham points out Descartes problem here when he says: “ … at some point–in the pineal gland, or whatever part of the brain is chosen as the ‘seat of the soul’–there has to be a raw interaction between the two wholly alien substances, mind and matter.

This is the central difficulty for Descartes’s account of the mind. ” Descartes’ inability to adequately explain the interaction between mind and body leaves his substance dualism with an underlying problem, problems which are not apparent with Spinoza’s substance monism. Spinoza’s first mention of the notions laid out by Descartes of a ‘thinking thing’ and an ‘extended thing’ is in (1P14 Cor. 2. ) when he states that: Cor. 1: From this it follows most clearly, first that God is unique, that is (by D6), that in Nature there is only one substance, and that it is absolutely infinite (as we indicated in P10S).

Cor. 2: It follows, second, that an extended thing and a thinking thing are either attributes of God, or (by A1) affections of God’s attributes. Spinoza’s positioning of God top and centre of the philosophy contained within the Ethics enables him to explain human existence through the infinite attributes of God. Spinoza disagrees with Descartes in that he does not consider mind and body to be substances; instead they are explained as attributes of God with modes being set out in Part I of the Ethics as the ‘affections of a substance’.

For Spinoza ideas are modes of thought and things are modes of extension. As discussed earlier, in (1p14) Spinoza demonstrates that there can be no other substance besides God. As God is the source of all attributes, including the extended thing and the thinking thing, the conclusion is that the thinking thing and the extended thing are interchangeable. The advantage of Spinoza’s substance monism here, over Descartes’ substance dualism is that he eliminates the need to explain interaction between mind and body since they are attributes of the same substance.

He therefore avoids the pitfalls Descartes’ philosophy is prone to as explained above. Spinoza does away with the need to explain the overlap of extended thing and thinking thing as for Spinoza the two do not have an overlap. To have an idea of the extended thing is to have an idea of the thinking thing and vice versa. This is Spinoza’s dual aspect theory. Spinoza’s theory that the object of the idea of the human mind is the body appears in Part I of the Ethics in (A6), where he says: “A true idea must agree with its object”.

In Part II (P13) he says: The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists and nothing else. Dem. : For if the object of the human mind were not the body, the ideas of the affections of the body would not be in God (by P9C) insofar as he constituted our mind, but insofar as he constituted the mind of another thing, that is (by P11C), the ideas of the affections of the body would not be in our mind; but (by A4) we have ideas of the affections of the body. Therefore, the object of the idea which constitutes the human mind is the body, and it (by P11) actually exists.

In contrast to Descartes’ mind, which interacts with the body via the pineal gland, Spinoza’s mind and body interact seamlessly as two of God’s infinite attributes. Jonathan Bennett explains that Spinoza’s ‘parallelism’ works because of the doctrine of substance monism on which his philosophy is build and which states that one substance is responsible for both attributes. If there were two substances, one extended and one thinking, Bennett says: “ […] it would not follow from the fact that something is extended and F that anything is thinking and F.

The potentially transattribute mode that combines with extension to yield my body might not be possessed by the thinking substance, in which case my mind would not exist. ” Accordingly then, for the body to exist then the mind must exist also, and vice versa. Spinoza’s substance monism enables him to address what he saw as the flaws in Descartes’ metaphysics. The God/Nature of Spinoza is impersonal, in contrast to Descartes’ benevolent God. Spinoza’s God is also presented at the very centre of his philosophy, his one and only substance.

By approaching his ontological argument ‘God first’ and with the establishment of one substance Spinoza is subsequently able to overcome the most notorious of Descartes’ problems, the relationship of mind and body. Ends 2873 words Bibliography Primary sources Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. by John Cottingham. Cambridge, 1985 Benedict Spinoza, The Ethics, Parts One & Two from A Spinoza Reader, Ed. & trans. by Edwin Curley. Princeton Univ.

Press, 1984 Secondary sources Tim Crane, (2000), Dualism, Monism, Physicalism, originally from Mind and Society (ed. R.Viale), cited from http://web. mac. com/cranetim/Tims_website/Online_papers. html Howard Robinson, “Dualism”, in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/fall2009/entries/dualism/ Steven Nadler, (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction, Cambridge University Press Michael Della Rocca (1996) Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza. Oxford University Press Edwin M Curley (1996) Spinoza, Life and Works, for the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, Blackwell, cited from http://www. sitemaker. umich. edu/emcurley/spinoza.

Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra, (2011) “Descartes’s Substance Dualism and His Independence Conception of Substance”, http://www. philosophy. ox. ac. uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/3104/Descartess_substance_dualism_and_his_independence_conception _of_substance. pdf John Cottingham (1992) “Cartesian dualism: theology, metaphysics, and science”, in John Cottingham (Ed. ) The Cambridge Companion to Descartes: Cambridge University Press, p236 Alan Woods (2011) “The History of Philosophy” Chapter Five Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. http://easyweb. easynet. co. uk/~socappeal/philosophy/chapter5. html.

Gilbert Ryle, (1955) The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd Jonathan Bennett, (1996) “Spinoza’s Metaphysics”, from Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Ed. by Markku Peltonen, Cambridge ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Tim Crane, (2000), Dualism, Monism, Physicalism, originally from Mind and Society (ed. R. Viale), cited from http://web. mac. com/cranetim/Tims_website/Online_papers. html [ 2 ]. Howard Robinson, “Dualism”, in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/fall2009/entries/dualism/ [ 3 ].

Howard Robinson, “Dualism”, in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ) http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/dualism/ [ 4 ]. CSM II, p54 [ 5 ]. Steven Nadler, (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction, Cambridge University Press p56 [ 6 ]. Michael Della Rocca (1996) Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza. Oxford University Press, pp 5-6. [ 7 ]. Ibid p6 [ 8 ]. CSM III, 31 [ 9 ]. Edwin M Curley (1996) Spinoza, Life and Works, for the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, Blackwell, cited from http://www. sitemaker. umich. edu/emcurley/spinoza [ 10 ].

Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra, (2011) “Descartes’s Substance Dualism and His Independence Conception of Substance”, http://www. philosophy. ox. ac. uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/3104/Descartess_substance_dualism_and_his_independence_conception _of_substance. pdf [ 11 ]. John Cottingham (1992) “Cartesian dualism: theology, metaphysics, and science”, in John Cottingham (Ed. ) The Cambridge Companion to Descartes: Cambridge University Press, p236 [ 12 ]. CSM II, p19 [ 13 ]. CSM I, p15 [ 14 ]. CSM II, pp 16-17 [ 15 ]. John Cottingham, (1992) “Cartesian Dualism”, from Cambridge Companion to Descartes.

Ed by John Cottingham, Cambridge, p239 [ 16 ]. CSM VI, pp 58-59 [ 17 ]. Ibid, p60 [ 18 ]. Alan Woods (2011) “The History of Philosophy” Chapter Five Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. http://easyweb. easynet. co. uk/~socappeal/philosophy/chapter5. html [ 19 ]. Gilbert Ryle, (1955) The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd, pp15-16 [ 20 ]. John Cottingham (1988) The Rationalists, Oxford University Press, p124 [ 21 ]. CSM VI, pp59-60 [ 22 ]. Jonathan Bennett (1996) “Spinoza’s Metaphysics”, from Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Ed. by Markku Peltonen, Cambridge, p81.


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